Companions’ Blog

A Spidery Palm Sunday

Today, we had our usual 8 am Sunday Eucharist. However, being that it is Palm Sunday, it had a bit more flair! We had a procession through the little convent chapel, into the lobby, outside and around a tree, and then back into the chapel. People held their palm branches (woven into the shape of a cross) as voices tentatively warbled the hymn, “All Glory Laud and Honour” a cappella.

The cavalcade was led by a visiting Sister from the Chemin Neuf community in France. She was called “The Crucifer” – which, if I understand correctly, basically means she carried a shiny cross on a stick. I had the nervous delight of being one of the people on either side and slightly behind her, bearing one of the two “torches.” I thought I would mess up, having no real history as a “high church” Anglican, but I just copied the quietly confident novice-Sister who was bearing the other torch parallel me.

But, alas, things quickly became All Glory Laud and Horror as our troupe re-entered the chapel and we torch bearers stopped on either side of the podium in the center of the room to wait out the rest of the hymn and – what do I spy? That’s right. You guessed it. The very content of my nightmares: a ginormous spider. Marching, in good processional form, right up behind me.

I am trapped.  I abandon decorum and cannot be sure what profanity (or if any at all) is breathed out as I attempt to push it away with my slippered foot.

Never do this.

The spider grasped the knit wool and followed my foot half way back to my standing place before (Thank the merciful Lord) abandoning ship. It stumbled toward me again and I picked up my skirt and moved around it, letting it pass by; managing, this whole time, not to spill a single bit of wax or set anyone aflame. In fact, perhaps I was more discreet than I felt on the inside, because people went on singing, seeming not to notice a thing.

Needless to say, I made it.

And, despite my distaste for the thing, I was pleased that not a single Sister stomped on it. The worst the creature got was a bewildering encounter with my slipper and an unnoticed look of disapproval from over-top a Sister’s glasses.

Happy Palm Sunday.

Sarah Moesker, Companion, SSJD

Transformation

At the age of 30, I left behind my career, my lifestyle, my church family, and various relationships, to take up another way of life.  I felt a call within: a keen desire to deepen my relationship with God.  I wanted to be alone with the Alone, and to do so I hied myself off to an Anglican convent, the Sisterhood of St. John the Divine, in North Toronto. There I was immersed in a regimen of prayer, work, study, and rest: living a more balanced life within a monastic community of similarly like-minded people whose ultimate goal is union with God. We prayed together several times daily, ate all our meals in common, and worked together for a common purpose.  I had classes and received mentoring to help foster my prayer and life in community. The various forms of prayer I learned prepared and opened me to contemplative prayer.  Contemplative prayer helps bring about inner conversion and transformation as we intentionally open ourselves to the loving presence of God in our lives. Far from being restrictive, the monastic life supplies a trellis or a set of building blocks to enable our hearts to grow in their deepest desire and love of God, and our lives bear the fruit of this prayer in our loving service for the sake of the gospel.
For me, contemplative prayer is a complete resting in God’s presence.  Easier said than done! Sometimes I approach contemplative prayer through lectio divina, which is a method of reading and praying with scripture.  In lectio I read a short passage of scripture and when a word or phrase grabs my attention, I stop, put down the book, and silently repeat the word to myself.  I repeat the word to help keep my mind from wandering as I sit in the silence waiting for the Spirit to illumine my heart. Sometimes I respond to the word with a spontaneous prayer arising from my heart.  Sometimes I find that the word itself has fallen away from consciousness and I suddenly realize that I have spent some time in silence in the presence of God.  Contemplative prayer has happened without my doing anything, that is, except for the ground work of being attentive to God’s presence in scripture, and continually turning my mind and heart back to God or my word every time I find my mind has wandered away.

Centering Prayer is another form of Contemplative prayer.   I begin my time of prayer with the sole intention of simply being in the presence of God and remaining open to God’s presence within.  I may take up a favourite prayer word to help quiet my mind when I have a hard time quietening down.  I don’t repeat the word constantly, but only use the word to help bring my mind back to stillness and my intention of being open to and in God’s presence.

The purpose of contemplative prayer is transformation which isn’t something we can do entirely of our own volition.  We rely on the action of the Holy Spirit who works within our innermost being to bring about the changes necessary to help us become more Christ-like. As with liturgy and praying with scripture, the purpose of practising the presence of God through contemplative prayer is to allow God’s Spirit to transform us from the inside out and then to propel us into our ministry.  Our ministry may be within the home, at work, in our community or in the wider world. The monastic life gives us the freedom to pursue our intention to be transformed into the likeness of Christ by giving us the disciplined lifestyle for intentionally practising contemplative prayer.   Those who cannot become full members of an intentional monastic community can pursue other ways to be affiliated with them by becoming Associates or Oblates of communities.  More information about affiliation with SSJD can be found on our website at:  www.ssjd.ca (The Sisterhood of St. John the Divine).

To read more about Centering Prayer and the Contemplative prayer tradition I’ve found Cynthia Bourgeault’s book, Centering Prayer and Inner Awakening is excellent.  Helpful websites for Centering Prayer, including a helpful app to aid in your practice of contemplative prayer, can be found at: Contemplative Outreach, http://www.contemplativeoutreach.org/; and The Contemplative Society http://www.contemplative.org/  with the Rev. Cynthia Bourgeault.

By Sister Elizabeth Ann Eckert, Novitiate Director SSJD
Photo by SSJD

Agapé

The Companions have been such a blessing to the Sisters in many ways. Most recently, on Sunday, March 12th they prepared an Agapé Meal for us all including any guests in the house. Amanda Avery from Nova Scotia was the one who organized this event and prepared a beautiful bulletin for it but all the Companions assisted her.

The service began in the Chapel with prayer, praise and confession and some beautiful hymns: “Be Still and Know”, “Here I Am, Lord” and “They’ll Know We Are Christians by our Love.” During this last hymn we processed into the refectory where the tables had been set up in the shape of a cross. They were beautifully set with table cloths and flowers and a chair was set at the head of the table for Jesus.

We were welcomed to the table, the candles were lit, and the bread and the wine were brought to the table. After the Gospel reading, the bread was blessed and passed around the table. This was followed by a delicious Middle Eastern style meal, served by the Companions and our Alongsider Claudine, after which the wine was blessed and passed around the table. At the end of the meal we were invited if we wished to take a moment to pray with Jesus. It was a very moving experience and beautifully done.

Sister Elizabeth Rolfe-Thomas, Rev. Mother

The Joy of Ministry at St. John’s Rehab

Each Companion has a work assignment while we are living with the sisters. Mine is visiting patients at St. John’s Rehab, the hospital next door which the sisters founded. The time I spend at the hospital is some of the most rewarding experiences that I have ever had in my life. The ability to work alongside a fellow Companion, sisters and other volunteers has opened my eyes to a new way of looking at the hospital experience. Sharing the time with Rev. Joanne Davies is special. I had never before known much about what a hospital Chaplain does, but I have gained a new appreciation not just for serving the patients but for the liturgy that the Chaplain leads.

hospital
Companions, Sisters, Chaplain and Volunteers on Spiritual Care Team at St. John’s Rehab division of Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre

But the most eye-opening opportunity I have had and continue to have at the hospital is visiting the patients. There are several stories/memories that I will cherish. The most memorable patients are those who have given more of themselves and taught me more about myself then I will ever give them. I have had the privilege of spending time with two amazing women who were diagnosed with dementia/alzheimer’s and coming to understand that I cannot bring them into my world. To comfort and support them I need to find a way into their world. And then I find they sometimes come out to me and even if for a moment there is a connection. One day a nurse found us singing “Jingle Bells.” She waited for us to finish and finding hope in the word “hope” was a magical experience.

Other encounters have been just as rewarding and the enthusiasm the patients have for life and to embrace their illness or their situation has been more than an inspiration. Each patient presents differently and as a spiritual care provider, I quickly need to adjust to what their needs are and how I approach them. Other patients have supported me and my needs more than I cared for them. Their zeal for life, understanding the reasons why they are there, and then using their hospital stay to the positive is just an example of how people can be so resilient. Knowing my time at the hospital is only a few hours each week, I make the most of every moment I have and loving it.

By Amanda Avery, an SSJD Companion, who has recently discovered a new gift as she leads a weekly art meditation group at the hospital.

Ash Wednesday GPS

Last week the Toronto Star ran a story about a  21-year old man who drove his SUV into the streetcar tunnel in downtown Toronto. It took eight people to get him out with a special crane that ran on tracks, and the incident diverted streetcar traffic for several hours during the morning rush hour.

But why did he do do such a thing the police asked? “I was just following my GPS” he said!
gps-1

I think Ash Wednesday – and Lent as a whole – is about exactly that – following our GPS, or recalibrating when we have gotten off track. But the GPS we should be following is what one of my Sisters calls the God Positioning System – not that annoying disembodied voice that hounds you to turn left even if you want to turn right, even if turning left is going to lead you into a traffic jam, or Lake Ontario – or a streetcar tunnel. And when you don’t follow the voice’s instructions it just gets more and more stressed – until finally it gives up in despair and says “recalibrating, recalibrating, recalibrating.”

Our God Postioning System doesn’t do that. Its voice is not pushy or insistent. Rather it offers a gentle invitation to recalibrate our lives, to look at what is really important to us and set our course anew. Ash Wednesday, with the ritual of the imposition of ashes, is a reminder of our mortality. We have come from the dust of the earth and our bodies will return there. But that is not the end of the story because we are created by the original GPS – the voice of the creating God who said “let us make humankind in our image.” God’s image is stamped on us. And because we are made in God’s image we too have the gift of creativity and freedom – the freedom to choose which GPS we want to follow.

The readings for the Eucharist on Ash Wednesday at first seem to embody two different GPS voices. “Blow the trumpet,” says the prophet Joel, “sound an alarm – a day of darkness and deep gloom is coming. Call on the name of the Lord – anyone who does will be saved.”

But then in Matthew’s gospel, Jesus says “do not blow the trumpet”! Don’t blow your own horn to advertise your piety. Practice your prayer and your care for the poor privately. Go into you room and shut the door and the God who created you, who sees you everywhere, will reward you. And Jesus makes it clear in other places that the reward we will receive is not an earthly reward but the reward of an intimate relationship with the God who created us and loves us

So which voice do we listen to? Blow the trumpet or don’t blow the trumpet? Well, both of course.Both are proclaiming the same essential message – pay attention to what is happening in the world around you, and position yourself so you are grounded, rooted, in the love of a God who said at Jesus’ baptism, and again on the mount of Transfiguration, “this is my Son, the Beloved – listen to him.”

Call the community to prayer, Joel says, that we may repent of our preoccupation with things, with what the Hebrew prophets constantly call “false gods.” Call on God’s name, not on the name of wealth or power or greed or ambition.

Go to prayer yourself, Jesus tells us – enter into that place of intimacy with God your creator where you too can hear God say “you are my beloved son, my beloved daughter.”

Both these voices of Ash Wednesday call us to a holy Lent, a Lent that is not about false piety or spiritual practices that we undertake just because we think we ought to, but a Lent where the trumpet calls the community to prayer, and where the inner voice calls the individual to prayer, and where individual and community come together to follow more closely the
path of Jesus.

Sr. Constance Joanna, Companions Coordinator

A Magic Place

blogpost-4If someone asked me to describe one of my earliest spiritual experiences, I would imagine The Starry Night by Vincent van Gogh. When I was in grade 2, I recreated the painting using pastels in art class. As my teacher laid out a copy of the original on my desk, I began to openly marvel at that famous pulsating, swirly sky. In contrast, I was overawed by the magnitude of the dark, wispy cypress tree before such quiet houses. I started to draw the village’s church steeple and thought, “Wow… I would love to live here.” What’s more is that I entered a meditative state of excitement where I felt this sensation of “being one with.” I was around seven at the time, so obviously, I didn’t know that. I just knew I had been touched deeply by the wild yet placid nature of the image.

A couple of weeks ago, some of the convent folk and I attended an event called Walking with the Artist: A Spiritual Journey, where Katharine Lochnan, the Art Gallery of Ontario’s Senior Curator of International Exhibitions, discussed her most recent project, Mystical Landscapes: Masterpieces from Monet, Van Gogh, and more. For those of you who are familiar with the exhibition, did you know that it was born out Katharine’s part-time study of “Integration for Ministry” at Regis College? I thought that was interesting. Mystical Landscapes largely focused on the spiritual backdrop of some of the most globally-celebrated paintings from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. She shared photos of artworks featured in the show, along with stories of the mystical experiences that inspired them. I learned that when Van Gogh felt a tremendous need for religion, he would go outside and paint the stars. I’m fascinated by people who experience euphoric flashes of freedom and creativity when communing with nature, because although I can agree with the breathtaking beauty of the natural world, it doesn’t necessarily move me to such heights. Anyhow, he also tried to become a minister like his father but to no avail. His paintings, he said, are his sermons. I now have a better understanding of my connection to Van Gogh’s 1889 narrative landscape.

starry-night
Close-up of Van Gogh’s Starry Night (See previous blogpost for full picture.)

Mystical Landscapes was apparently so widely received that its closing date was extended by two weeks. So, I checked it out. It was quite a trek to get down to the AGO – I went on that icy, wet, miserable day at the beginning of this month – but it was totally worth it. My experience of the exhibition was elevating and unworldly. It was enough for me to glean the vicarious pleasures of contemplating with natural scenery through those rare masterpieces. They lifted me up to the presence of God at a time when I’m usually bereft of religious fervour. Everyone in attendance was respectful of each other’s space. The sober and pensive atmosphere was inebriating. Seeing Van Gogh’s Starry Night over the Rhône was special. Cultivating a spirit of peace and wonder in me, it conveyed an experience like the one I remember from childhood. The stars looked like they were glowing on the canvas.

It’s a comforting thought knowing that the divine mystery rolled around in the hearts of all those artists – From the likes of Gaugin to Emily Carr. I feel blessed by their spiritual insights because they have encouraged me to continue discerning the way forward as a Companion to the SSJD. It’s no coincidence that Mystical Landscapes came at this point in my life. I think God was treating me with this one.

A. Samuel, SSJD Companion

Mystical Landscapes

mystical-landscapes-ticketA wonderful adventure awaited us as we had the opportunity to go and see the Mystical Landscapes exhibit at the Art Gallery of Ontario together with the Sisters. Not only did we have an insightful talk from the Curator of the Exhibition, Katharine Lochnan about the planning and organizing behind all of it, we also got VIP tickets.

I was excited. I knew some of the names of the artists; that made it all the more thrilling. I’d already seen some of the originals by two of the giants who would be there: Gauguin and Van Gogh. Of course this was going to be exciting, seeing originals by them again – and not only them – but also by great Impressionists like Monet and others.

I am not going to attempt to describe any of the actual artworks in words, for I will most certainly do them a great injustice by doing so. Instead I will focus on my experience and the lovely day we all had. It was delightful traveling down from the convent to the AGO in four cars; Sr. Elizabeth also did a very impressive parking maneuver down in the underground parking lot. It was a chilly day, but thankfully we were soon warmed up by enjoying some hot beverages inside the building.starry-night

300px-van_gogh_the_olive_trees

The time came for us to see the exhibit and peruse the artworks at our own leisure. Even though it was teeming with people, there was a curious calmness about the whole experience. I was drawn in by two works in particular: both by Van Gogh (Starry Night Over the Rhône and The Olive Trees). It was almost as if I became instantly happy by simply staring at these paintings.

The mystical aspect of the exhibition was interesting to contemplate in light of what we Companions are experiencing this year at St. John’s Convent. Personally, I felt very moved by the sense of community when travelling together, having a meal together, and sharing in the experience of viewing magnificent artworks in a prayerful atmosphere. Many had interesting insights to share afterwards as well. I am grateful to everyone who was involved in organizing this event for us – it was truly memorable and meaningful.

H. Becker, SSJD Companion

A Heart-y Reflection

valentineFebruary is the month made popular for Love by stories of Saint Valentine. Anglican, Lutheran and Orthodox Christians commemorate this Saint who was martyred on February 14, 269 CE.

Valentine was a priest in Rome who was imprisoned for helping other persecuted Christians, offering consolation during those frightening times, when Christians were being imprisoned and martyred for their faith.  Legend tells of a miracle performed by the imprisoned Valentine when he healed the blindness of the daughter of his jailer.

The miracle led the jailer and all his family to undergo baptism and become Christians. The night before his execution Valentine is supposed to have written the first “valentine” card to the daughter of his jailer which was signed, “Your Valentine.”

It was much later that the feast of Saint Valentine became associated with romantic love, and now has grown in our days as a secular celebration complete with cards, gifts, and confections, losing its far more important aspect of faithfulness to the love and compassion known to us in Jesus.  Valentine’s loving knew no borders in which he readily healed the blind girl’s sight even though she was the daughter of his jailer.

We are living in troubling times where people are being targeted and persecuted for their faith.  What the world needs is love and compassion to counteract fear and hate of those who seem different than us.

Let our hearts touch far horizons,
so encompass great and small;
let our loving know no borders,
faithful to God’s call. 

(from Gordon Light’s “Draw the Circle Wide”)

Sister Elizabeth Ann Eckert, Guest House Team 

A Paper Clip and a Sticky Flag

paper-clipsA Paper Clip and a Sticky Flag

It’s interesting that in the last few months the other Companions and I have really focused on the little things that support our lives here. I most recently attended a church service outside the Convent and realized that there were no paper clips or sticky flags to mark the pages in the prayer book or hymnal (something we use a lot at convent services to help us find our places in the Divine Office binder and the various hymn books we use).

sticky-flagsI started to think, the paper clips and sticky flags are a metaphor for something much bigger here. They remind me where I was but also where I need to go in the service books. Is that true for life? The paper clips and flags are marking where I am going and where I came from? Maybe. But having the flags and clips create a sense of comfort. There are times when I can go back to where I came from but I also need to move forward. Moving forward though the binder/hymnal and moving forward through life. Having the clips to hold it all together is also part of the metaphor. What holds me together here are friends/family from home and friends that are made here (the past and the present coming together).

Therefore, today I will mark with the paper clip where I have come from and all I have accomplished. Then I’ll use a flag to celebrate where I am going. I will wave that flag high when I get there knowing that I will mark it with a clip so I can reuse the flag in my next goal of life. Always moving forward though life, marking where I am going is my goal. But understanding where you have come from is also important to remember.

Amanda Avery, SSJD Companion